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The transformative potential of social protection public works to empower adolescent girls and young women

Emmeline Skinner and Benjamin Zeitlyn, Department for International Development
15 Jan 2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed within this Think Piece are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF. This Think Piece has not been edited to official publication standards and UNICEF accepts no responsibility for errors.

Emmeline Skinner and Benjamin Zeitlyn, Department for International Development

Young women and adolescent girls are often overlooked by public works programmes, despite clear evidence on the critical importance of adolescence within the life course, with regard to vulnerability, nutrition, reproductive health, and transition to the labour market. Adolescence has also been shown to be a critical juncture in people’s lives, at which decisions made and paths taken can have a profound effect on outcomes in adult life and the lives of the next generation.

This paper explores the potential for public works programmes to address some of these challenges in terms of targeting older adolescent girls and young women with gender-sensitive approaches that have the potential not only to meet their immediate needs, but also provide them with skills and experience to support their transition into the labour market and promote economic empowerment.

Poverty and Youth Employment in Mozambique

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 180 out of 188 in the 2018 Human Development Index. GDP per capita is only $426, and some 63% of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, whilst 46% fall below the national poverty line. With a population of almost 30 million, 66% are under the age of 24, and 22% are between the ages of 15 and 24 (and the focus of this paper). At present, approximately 35% of the population live in urban areas, although this is set to rise considerably over the next decade as urbanisation trends continue, so that by 2040 there will be more people living in urban than rural areas of Mozambique.

Despite the discovery of immense gas reserves in 2010, and a short burst of economic growth based on optimistic forecasts, there has been little job creation in Mozambique and young people are growing up in a context in which 80% of employment is informal. Research carried out by the DFID funded MUVA programme in Maputo and Beira showed that as few as 18% of young people are in any form of waged employment and only 4% have a formal contract.

Social Protection in Mozambique

Social Protection is a central pillar of Mozambique’s poverty reduction strategy and benefits from strong Government commitment. In 2018, 71% of the budget for social protection came from the state budget, up from 62% in 2008. In recent years, despite economic problems, social protection budgets have been protected and have even seen modest increases.

Social protection in Mozambique is managed by The National Institute of Social Action (INAS), which is part of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Action (MGCAS). INAS implements three cash transfer programmes that are part of the National Basic Social Security Strategy (ENSSB2). These are i) a basic programme (PSSB) covering about 370,000 households targeting poor and vulnerable older people, people with disabilities, chronically sick and vulnerable children; (ii) a public works programme (PASP); and (iii) the Direct Social Support Programme (PASD) which has two components, one providing in-kind support and a second focused on post-Emergency Cash Transfers (PASD-PE). In addition, the Programme of Social Services for Social Action (PSSAS) provides support through social work and institutions (e.g. elderly centres, day care centres).

Total coverage of all social protection programmes in 2017 was 470,786 direct beneficiaries or households. If we assume that each household has an average of five people in it, the programmes together benefit almost 2.4 million people. This is less than 20% of the number of poor people in Mozambique, which is over 13 million people.

Mozambique Social Protection Coverage 2017

The ‘Programa de Acção Social Produtiva’ (PASP) is a public works programme, in which participants work for four days a week, for four hours a day, for four months a year (six in urban areas). The timing of this should link to seasons when there is no agricultural work. Participants receive a monthly allowance of 1050 MT ($17). PASP has been supported by a loan from the World Bank, but delivered by INAS. The programme has suffered from delays and a range of problems. Many of these problems originate from the overambitious design and expansion plan, the radical changes to INAS’s existing ways of delivery that PASP entailed, and political resistance to some of these changes. PASP participants do a range of types of work, but many of these have not been very ‘productive’ or led to the construction of useful assets. The programme has not effectively designed and delivered the component that is supposed to develop skills or provide work experience that enables participants to find employment. Work is short-term, low paid and provides only temporary income rather than facilitating long-term job creation or sustainable exits from poverty.

Targeting has been an issue. The World Bank approach of using a poverty means test (PMT), means that the programme targets the poorest households, but the process is slow and unpopular with government. The way that the PMT assesses households using data on the head of the household overlooks the existence and status of adolescents within the household.  PASP has been ineffective at targeting and including youth (with public works generally targeting household heads/spouses rather than young people). This is because PASP public works have tended to be low status, low skill, and unattractive jobs that rarely appeal to young people. Middle-aged women make up the majority of PASP participants, but the programme is not particularly gender-sensitive nor leads to women’s economic empowerment, and so fails to address power dynamics or have any real transformative effect on gender relations.

Finally, INAS has not had the capacity to manage a complex public works programme. PASP has a constant churn of beneficiaries, payments, procurement and management of equipment, delivery of public works, and skills training. INAS has neither the capacity in-house, nor the partnerships with other public or private institutions at local level, to deliver this range of activities.

A new approach to Public Works

MUVA, a DFID-funded programme which tests innovative approaches to promoting economic empowerment of young women and adolescent girls, is piloting a different kind of public works that offers the potential to facilitate adolescent girls’ and young women’s entry into the labour market. The project, called MUVA Assistentes (see explanation box) responds to some of the problems with PASP. It shifts the way we conceptualise public works; away from short-term temporary employment towards a form of internship or apprenticeship that provides young women with an income, and gives them the skills and experience that can improve their opportunities to find employment in the future. It also changes how we measure the outputs of public works, away from the creation or maintenance of physical public assets and infrastructure, and towards a focus on the delivery of basic services that meet young women’s needs. In this example, the model delivers teaching assistance in over-crowded classrooms, thereby improving the learning environment for both girls and boys, but also addressing a gender imbalance in schools, where the majority of teachers are male and where sexual harassment is commonplace. In addition to building the skills and experience of adolescent girls and young women in a way that prepares them better for future employment, this model also has the potential to prepare a pipeline of experienced (female) employees to work as public officials in service delivery in the future.

The MUVA Assistentes Model

  • Targets adolescent girls and young women (aged 18-25) from poor households in low income urban neighbourhoods who have completed 10th grade of school.
  • Provides participants with an intensive 4-week training course, followed by a year of paid work experience as part-time teaching assistants (4 hours per day) in over-crowded primary school classrooms.
  • Teaching assistants work alongside professional teachers, supporting them in the classroom and with correction of homework, earning a stipend of $32 per month.
  • Following a year of experience, girls are better equipped to find employment.
  • Addresses the three priorities of: poverty reduction (and graduation from poverty); youth skills and employment; and improvement of primary education experience.
  • Holds the potential to provide a pipeline of experienced young women to work in public sector service delivery roles (teaching and other professions) in the future.

Preliminary Results of MUVA Assistentes:

  • Cash transfer offers the first form of income for most girls, with financial inclusion rising from 27% to 96% as girls opened bank accounts to save their cash.
  • Significant improvement in the learning environment and the relationship between the pupils and the adults in the classroom (both assistant and teacher).
  • Significant impact in terms of “soft skills” and employability skills (i.e. body language, confidence when speaking and expression, logical argumentation).
  • 96% of participants have a clear professional aim they are now working towards.

For more information see a short video on how the model works.

Two cycles of the MUVA Assistentes model have already been tested out in Maputo, reaching over 180 young women and a third and final cycle of the project is now underway. The project is now active in 15 inner city schools covering a total of 200 classrooms, and an estimated 10,000 pupils.  MUVA has successfully influenced the National Social Assistance Institute (INAS) to pilot the Assistentes approach as part of the government’s programme for social protection national social protection programme and 100 assistants are currently being employed as part of the World Bank funded Productive Social Action Programme (PASP). In 2020, INAS will assess the initiative and, if deemed successful, will add the approach to their portfolio of social transfers, thereby guaranteeing the continuation and expansion of the initiative both in Maputo and nationally.

Simultaneously, a scoping study is underway to explore different options that could be piloted under a similar model, involving partnerships with municipalities or public service delivery agencies. These could include the employment of young women in urban development and the creation of green spaces, the monitoring and maintenance of water delivery services, the monitoring and maintenance of electric services, the delivery of home-based care or health campaigns, provision of early childhood care or after-school care, food-handling for school nutrition programmes, sports coaching, community services, crime prevention, etc.  


Challenges of the MUVA Public Works Plus Model

Scaling up MUVA Assistentes through PASP has revealed a number of challenges. One of these is how to shift from household-based targeting to an approach that identifies vulnerable adolescent girls and young women within eligible households.  There were some concerns that finding a sufficient number of adequately educated young women amongst the poorest households would be impossible, yet analysis of poverty data showed that as many as 76% of households in the poorest quintile have an adolescent girl in secondary school, while 83% of those in the second poorest quintile do, indicating that there is no shortage of educated young women in extreme poor households who would be eligible for public work.

Another challenge is to maintain quality when going to scale, with existing public works programmes tending to prioritise coverage and numbers, rather than focusing on quality of employment or training and skills provided. Linked to this is the challenge of the cost of training and the slightly higher stipend offered (in order to make the work attractive and appealing to young people). Currently as many as 70% of PASP beneficiaries are female, but this tends to reflect the low wage and lack of other opportunities for poor women and the fact that men are not drawn to (or can find alternatives to) such low paid work. Another issue which needs to be considered in the implementation of these more complex public works is that of institutional ownership and management, particularly where partnerships are required with other public entities (such as municipalities or local schools, as is the case with MUVA Assistentes). There are still issues that need to be resolved with regard to who delivers and covers the costs of the training, as well as who manages participants in these different types of employment. Finally, it is important to be aware of the political economy challenges in implementing these cross-sectoral types of public works, in terms of the need for co-ordination across ministries and sectors (and budget-sharing), which is not always easy to manage in the case where social protection falls under one ministry, but the sectors in which the public works take place falls under another. Given all these challenges, it is critical to manage the risks of adding too much complexity to a social protection system that may already struggle with core delivery and basic systems (such as targeting and payment mechanisms) and to ensure that these are in place to provide the foundation on which any more innovative form of public works is based.  


Public works have been used as a preferred form of social protection by many donors and governments for decades, favoured for their perceived economic and political benefits, in terms of increasing productivity, contributing to graduation from poverty, and promoting political stability. Yet evidence of their impact on job creation is very weak, and little consideration has been given to their potential for addressing the challenge of youth unemployment and the particular constraints facing young women in entering the labour market. The time has come for a step change in our approach to, and expectations of, what public works can achieve, with the Mozambique pilot offering the potential to generate new evidence and lessons on how a new type of public works can bridge the gap between social protection and economic empowerment, and have a transformative effect on outcomes for adolescent girls and young women.

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